From orange to black and gold: Athletic board certificate helps Ella Simkins ’20, G’21 land at Army Lax

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Health & Society

Ella Simkins ’20, G’21

Ella Simkins ’20, G’21 had big plans for the 2020 women’s lacrosse season. A standout defenseman, during her junior year she had started all 21 games, recorded career highs in turnovers and draw checks, and ranked third on the team in turnovers, all during a 16-5 season for the Orange.

However, the coronavirus pandemic canceled Simkins’ senior season after just eight games, just before Orange’s March 12 trip to Charlottesville, Va., to face the Cavaliers.

After that disappointment, Simkins, like other student-athletes at Orange, was offered a fifth year of eligibility for 2020-21. Having already obtained her undergraduate degree, to return she had to join a graduate program. Her chosen path – through the School of Education’s Advanced Certificate in Intercollegiate Athletic Counseling and Support (CAS in IAAS), which was revamped in 2021 and has become a popular option for athletes from fifth grade – set Simkins on his coaching career path.

“Through our CAS classes, and especially mine, I saw Ella as that budding gem that I thought would be an amazing coach,” says the professor. Cathy Engstrom, Director of the Department of Higher Education. “Ella thrived in the classrooms and also on the lacrosse field, becoming a 2021 All American. In all my years of teaching and amazing student growth, her transformation has been one of the most rewarding.

Now a assistant coach of the Army’s West Point Black Knightsas well as a member of Unlimited Pro Lacrosse League Athleteswe caught up with Simkins to learn more about her experience in the CAS in IAAS program and how it helped her navigate her first year at Army Lax.

  • 01

    How did you decide to take the CAS in Intercollegiate Athletic Advisory and Support?

    Simkins was offered a fifth year of eligibility to play lacrosse after the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the 2020 season.

    COVID happened in my senior year, in the middle of the season. We all had big plans and big goals for the season, but it got cut short, so at first I was just trying to figure it out. I was considering getting a master’s degree and embarking on a career in medical sales, so I browsed graduate programs and attended information sessions. When I went to the one Professor Engstrom was leading on the CAS at the IAAS, I was super interested, as were other athletes who were returning for their fifth year.

    The way Professor Engstrom promoted the course made it even more appealing. She was really supportive throughout the process and provided me with all the information I needed to make my decision and find classes that fit my practice schedule. All of this made getting into the program much easier.

  • 02

    Was becoming a coach already on your radar?

    I always thought about coaching, but I didn’t know if that was exactly what I wanted to do. I really started thinking about it around the middle of my fifth year because Professor Engstrom and I were having conversations about what to expect next.

    We did a lot of thinking in class, which helped clear my mind, in the sense of wondering if coaching is something that suits me. Many class activities have been structured for reflection. Professor Engstrom helped me a lot in finding my path, and I know other student-athletes thought the same.

  • 03

    What elements of the CAS program were you particularly interested in?

    Much of it was extremely interesting because of how it reflected the student-athlete experience. But the classes also showed you the other side of college athletics that athletes don’t see, the structural side of things, like getting athletes into college.

    What was most interesting were the program proposals Professor Engstrom asked us to develop, ideas to improve the student-athlete experience. My first project was to create an anonymous feedback initiative for student-athletes. This idea turned into a proposal that, in my opinion, was even more productive and useful for them.

    Her teammate Vanessa Costantino ’20, G’21 and I created “The Force Between Your Ears: A Journal to Train Your Brain Like You Train Your Body.” It is a “mindfulness planner” to address the mental health of student-athletes. The planner is packed with structured questions for thinking, as well as word and number games, coloring pages and visualization guides, all different activities to help with mindfulness and stress relief.

    We created what we thought was a nicer and more useful planner than traditional planners. The idea came from the meditation and visualization we did in the lacrosse program, which helped me a lot, and also from the mindfulness classes I took as part of my communication classes and undergraduate rhetorical studies.

  • 04

    How has the IAAS CAS helped you in your military coaching?

    CAS has definitely helped me in a number of ways, especially thinking about the administrative side of things from my own perspective as a student-athlete. The CAS in IAAS is a perfect structural blend of both sides of college athletics – administration and student experience – that gives you thoughtful approaches to solving different challenges.

    What we did in the program also helped me deal with issues with individual players. At the beginning of this year, I contacted Professor Engstrom to ask him about different activities to bring the team together. She always had the best activities to do so, and she is great to contact. At the beginning of his classes, we had always had a period of independent work based on our readings. Her questions were perfect, not at all like doing homework, and they started some really productive conversations in class.

  • 05

    What advice would you give to students considering taking the CAS in IAAS as a route to coaching?

    What made this program so good was the fact that it wasn’t just student-athletes who went through it, and it got us thinking about different perspectives. It broadened my horizons. So whether you are a student-athlete or not, the impact of the program is greater than you might expect. If you are a student-athlete, you will learn a lot about the experiences you have had and build on them to make something bigger.

    Learn more online about Advanced Certificate in Intercollegiate Athletic Counseling and Support or contact Professor Cathy Engstrom at [email protected] or 315.443.4763.

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